Bounce – A must-read for coaches?

Are superior athletes born that way? Or can people become superior athletes through hard work?

Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success by Matthew Syed, champion table tennis player and commentator for the BBC, argues the latter. He says that athletes are made, not born. Through purposeful practice, athletes can master skills to the point they are automatic, just as using a pencil or driving a car. As part of this learning, athletes must be willing to embrace mistakes, and coaches must recognize players for their effort and progress, not what talent they perceive the player as having. The same approach can also be used to produce superior artists, executives, and professionals. 

In fact, Syed writes off talent as a myth. People who seem talented, even prodigies, have dedicated at least 10 years (Syed quotes Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule) to their craft either consciously or inadvertently. He cites examples of when people are recognized for their talent, they start performing worse than when they’re recognized for their effort. He also cited Enron as an example of what happens when people are praised too highly on their seemingly innate talent. People would rather lie and cover up mistakes than to have people see them as “not as talented” as they claim to be.

Removing the burden of the “talent myth” also motivates athletes. If they feel they have a fair chance to improving their skills, they are more willing to work harder. Syed says another form of motivation is when they see somone like them succeed as well. One example is the increase in the number of South Korean women golfers after one of them won a major tournament.

Bounce has a number of good ideas, and I can see how these can be applied to improve performance. I’ve also seen how the “talent myth” has undermined players who have potential to succeed. The book does have some weaknesses. Certain physical limitations can’t be practiced away.  A kid with short, stocky legs won’t have the speed as someone who has longer legs. If you’re 6′ 6″ and weigh 285 pounds, you’re better off as a linebacker than a ballet dancer.

The book also contains a rather strange chapter which seems to advocate a limited use of performance-enhancing drugs and gene modifications as long as they are safe. The idea is if it’s OK for us to use medications to improve our health and prolong our lives, why couldn’t athletes use drugs and gene therapy if it is safe? This is food for thought, but it doesn’t fit in with the “talent myth” argument. If purposeful practice and motivation can improve our skils and even bring about physical changes in our bodies, why do we need artificial enhancement? Furthermore, there have been plenty of examples of medications that the government once thought were safe, but actually turned out to be dangerous.

On the whole, Bounce provides a new way of looking at improving performance. It’s one coaches should look at.